Photo by Larry HirshowitzSHE KNEW IT WAS THE PART OF A LIFETIME WHEN SHE read the script, but Ann Savage never dreamed she'd end up as one of the great noir femmes fatales. Her performance is remembered with amazement, and written about with awed and awful superlatives: "She has eyes so terrifying," said one writer, "one wonders how those who behold her in the flesh manage to avoid being turned to stone." "She gives a performance that defies conventional credibility," wrote another, "ugly, unpleasant, a shrill unmodulated embodiment of the Yeats dictum that only the unexplained is irresistible."
But today, the woman who gave life to Vera, the mercenary, consumptive Fury from Edgar G. Ulmer's no-budget 1945 masterpiece, Detour, is as lovely and gracious as only an older movie star ever seems to be. She remembers her days on the film fondly, all three and a half of them (the picture took only six to shoot), and the fact that people today are as taken with Vera as she was makes her very happy indeed. "I knew it was a most unusual part," she says with delight.
Savage was fresh off a two-year stint as a contract player at Columbia when she was offered the role. She had played her share of heavies there, but it was in one crystallizing moment between Ulmer and herself during shooting that Vera was born. Savage had delivered her first important line ("Where did you leave the body?") when Ulmer interrupted. "He said, 'No, no, no,'" she recalls intently, "and he snapped his fingers very hard, very fast. He wanted me to speed up my delivery, which I did, and that was the key. It gave it the psychosis." If Vera's psychosis hints at the actress's own wilder side, her life after Detour bears it out.
"I seem to lean towards anything that moves fast," says Savage. "I'm not the sort of person who sits." Savage and her late husband, Bert, once sped their two-seater Mercedes through East Germany, Istanbul and Khrushchev-era Russia, and it was Bert who came up with the name Savage -- he'd witnessed some righteous anger in his future wife. Now 78, Savage still plays tennis weekly although, much to her sadness, her depth perception has waned, and six years ago she had to give up flying ("a 250 Comanche, retractable gear -- that's a high-performance airplane"). She no longer looks for acting work, but if you ask her if she was disappointed about giving up on Hollywood in the early '50s, Savage sighs and says yes. "I worked so hard," she says wistfully, "but I never had the luck."
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I suggest to her that a lot of people have those moments when everything just comes together, but very few of those moments ever become Detour's kind of history. Savage looks pleased but startled, as if she'd never considered that idea before. "Yes," she agrees softly. "That's very true."
Ann Savage will appear at the April 7 screening of Detour.
SIDE STREETS AND BACK ALLEYS: First Annual Festival of Film Noir At The American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater | 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood | April 215 | (323) 466-3456, Ext. 2